This often erotic novel is a manifesto for individualism and the power of art to lift a human being caught up in the rat race to imaginative heights. The narrative often blurs the lines between real-life and fantasy and mixes in high art with slapstick comedy.
Don Rigoberto is a Peruvian insurance exectutive who is separated from his second wife following a much-hinted at but never fully revealed liaison between her and Don Rigoberto's son from his first marriage. The son, Fonchito, is a precociously intelligent adonis who has become obsessed with the paintings of the Austrian artist Egon Schiele who died in 1918 of Spanish Flu. Schiele's sketches and pictures of female nudes are almost pornographic and he was arrested on indecency charges.
Despite their past liaison, Fonchito, begins visiting his stepmother, Lucretia, at her home and confides his obsessional fascination with the Austrian painter and his belief that their lives and destinies are somehow linked.
Lucretia is suspicious of Fonchito but attracted to him and can not turn him away despite blaming him for the break-up of her marriage to the youth's father. She also finds herself drawn to his obsession with Schiele and even agrees, with her maid Justina, to pose (fully-clothed) in some of the positions Schiele depicted his models in.
Don Rigoberto, meanwhile, trys to recreate his wife in his imagination, often putting her into scenarios where she is seduced by other men.
Each chapter is broken up into a series of themes, starting with an encounter between Fonchito and Lucretia, followed by a letter written to by Rigoberto setting out some aspect of his personal philosophy of life or critique of modern society. Then will come a scene in which he imaginatively casts Lucrecia in some new sexual adventure.
Rigoberto believes art is the highest expression of the human condition and it is through art that he sees life, particularly in paintings.
He is contemptuous of the vulgarisation of society and anything that approaches a mass concensus. Any attempts to supress individuality horrify him - to the point where he admires a peeping tom who he read about in a newspaper who was caught on a neighbours roof and spying her in her bath because he had a fetish about under-arm hair.
While Rigoberto abhors under-arm hair, he has more sympathy for the peeping tom than the society which jailed him and mocked him in its newspapers because his fetish was a mark of his individuality for which he was prepared to suffer humiliation and ultimately imprisonment.
Rigoberto's reference points for life are usually a painting, piece of music, a poem or novel - through art he believes that humans articulate their most vital experience and he sees this styalised reworking more valid than the raw and unfiltered real thing. He regards a painting of a pastoral scene more valid than the countryside itself.
He comes across as an arrogant character, contemptuous of most of his fellow humans, but somehow remains likeable.
My version of this novel – inscribed by Varga Llosa following a lecture in Belfast eight or nine years ago, contains outlines of some of Schiele's works – but the author name checks dozens of other works and you can often be left floundering and struggling to keep up with his wide artistic frame of reference.
The reader is expected to abandon all expectations of a linear narrative and submerge themselves in Vargas Llosa's world where the dreams and fantasies of Rigoberto weave in and out with reality and at times it is not clear what is real and what is imagined but then that is part of the charm of this novel.